When TheSmokingGun.com revealed that James Frey had apparently fabricated, conflated and/or embellished parts of his bestselling A Million Little Pieces, the whole bookish world started running around as if in Casablanca: they were shocked—shocked!—that not every single word of the book was verifiably "true."

"A true story should be true," one reader wrote to Abebooks.com. "What a liar!" wrote another. There were even rumors that Oprah Winfrey herself—who had chosen the memoir for her powerful book club—was going to be forced to recant her endorsement. (She didn't. In fact, she stood by her memoir man.) They might as well have just yelled, "We wuz robbed." And once again, "crass" publishing was the perpetrator.

It's common wisdom in the book business that nonfiction sells better than fiction, and there have been many examples in recent years that memoirists sell best of all. So, yes, Frey, or his editor Sean MacDonald or his publisher, Nan Talese, made a "crass" decision to publish Pieces as nonfiction (Frey first presented the book as fiction). But another truism of publishing is that a good memoir must share many of the traits of a novel. It has to have a narrative and development and denouement. And sometimes that means the story might sacrifice small accuracies for larger "truth."

This happens all the time, of course, and memoirists regularly get pilloried for it. (I remember complaints from Dave Eggers's family for some portrayals in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and even the sainted Frank McCourt was questioned about just how bad things really were in Limerick.) But memoirists aren't journalists, they're narcissists. They don't claim to tell the whole story; they're only really interested in their own.

So I wonder about all those people who say they feel duped by James Frey. Would they have bought an earnest, footnoted academic treatise on alcoholism if it read like, well, an earnest, footnoted academic treatise on alcoholism? Further, does whatever hope or redemption that Frey's book has apparently provided really depend on whether he was incarcerated for three months or three hours? Somehow, I doubt it.

I'm not letting James Frey off the hook, exactly—though I do admire his books and have occasionally interacted with him socially (note to TheSmokingGun.com: Documention of this acquaintanceship can be made available). He probably should have reined in his narrative excesses and sharpened his memory. His editor probably should have insisted that the book was "based on a true story," and issued all the usual caveats about conflation and attenuation.

But vilifying Frey & Co. is beside the point—and way too easy. Like many memoirists before him, who, after all, practice what is known in writing programs as creative nonfiction, Frey produced a compelling portrait of an addict's life, complete with an addict's grandiosities and deceptions. He changed some names to protect the innocent, and some details to protect—and, it must be said, aggrandize—himself. But he didn't write front-page newspaper profiles of people he'd never talked to, and he never claimed that Pieces was supposed to be All the President's Men. In fact, as evidenced by the book's great reception, he gave readers what readers want: a really good story.

Or, to paraphrase a great (fictional, I think) character: When it comes to memoir, readers say they want the truth, but they can't handle the truth. Not unless it reads like a novel.